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A History of French Literature by Edward Dowden

Was NICOLAS DE MALEBRANCHE 1638 1715


Descartes'

opponent, Pierre Gassendi (1592-1655), epicurean in his physics, an empiricist, though an inconsistent one, in philosophy, chose the Latin language as the vehicle for his ideas. A group of writers whose tendencies were towards sensualism or scepticism, viewed him as their master. Chapelle in verse, La Mothe le Vayer in prose, may serve as representatives of art surrendering itself to vulgar pleasures, and thought doubting even its doubts, and finding repose in indifference.

The true successor of Descartes in French philosophy, eminent in the second half of the century, was NICOLAS DE MALEBRANCHE (1638-1715). Soul and body, Descartes had shown, are in their very nature alien each from the other. How then does the soul attain a knowledge of the external world? In God, the absolute substance, are the ideas of all things; in God we behold those ideas which matter could never convey to us, and which we could never ourselves originate; in God we see and know all things. The _Recherche de la Verite_ (1674-75) was admirably written and was widely read. The theologians found it dangerous; and when six years later Malebranche published his _Traite de la Nature et de la Grace_, characterised briefly and decidedly by Bossuet as "pulchra, nova, falsa," at Bossuet's request both Arnauld and Fenelon attempted to refute "the extravagant Oratorian." His place in the evolution of philosophy lies between Descartes and Spinoza, who developed and completed the doctrine

of Descartes. In the transition from dualism to monism Malebranche served as a mediator.

Religious thought in the seventeenth century, wedded to an austere morality, is expressed by the writers of Port-Royal, and those who were in sympathy with them. They could not follow the flowery path of piety--not the less the narrow path because it was cheerful--pointed out by St. Francois de Sales. Between nature and grace they saw a deep and wide abyss. In closest connection with them was one man of the highest genius--author of the _Provinciales_ and the _Pensees_--whose spiritual history was more dramatic than any miracle-play or morality of the Middle Ages.

BLAISE PASCAL was born at Clermont-Ferrand in 1623. His father, a president of the Court of Aids at Clermont, a man of intellect and character, guided his education in languages, natural science, and mathematics. The boy's precocity was extraordinary; at sixteen he had written a treatise on Conic Sections, which excited the astonishment of Descartes. But the intensity of study, preying upon a nervous constitution, consumed his health and strength; at an early age he suffered from temporary paralysis. When about twenty-three he fell under the religious influences of certain disciples of St. Cyran, read eagerly in the writings of Jansen and Arnauld, and resolved to live for God alone. But to restore his health he was urged to seek recreation, and by degrees the interests and pleasures of the world took hold upon him; the master of his mind was the sceptical Montaigne; he moved in the mundane society of the capital; and it has been conjectured from hints in his _Discours sur les Passions de l'Amour_ that he loved the sister of his friend, the Duc de Roannez, and had the vain hope of making her his wife.

The spirit of religion, however, lived within his heart, and needed only to be reawakened. The reawakening came in 1654 through the persuasions of his sister, Jacqueline, who had abandoned the world two years previously, and entered the community of Port-Royal. The abbey of Port-Royal, situated some seven or eight miles from Versailles, was presided over by Jacqueline Arnauld, the Mere Angelique, and a brotherhood of solitaries, among whom were several of the Arnauld family, had settled in the valley in the year 1637. With this unvowed brotherhood Pascal, though never actually a solitary, associated himself at the close of 1654. An escape from sudden danger in a carriage accident, and a vision or ecstasy which came to him, co-operated in his conversion. After his death, copies of a fragmentary and passionate writing referring to this period--the so-called "amulet" of Pascal--were found upon his person; its words, "renonciation totale et douce," and "joie, joie, joie, pleurs de joie," express something of his resolution and his rapture.


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